Drunken driving bill moves quickly

ST. PAUL (AP)–An attempt to lower the state’s drunken driving threshold that failed late in last year’s session advanced early and easily Wednesday, an omen for success, supporters say.
The bill would lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. The House Judiciary Committee endorsed the bill 16-3.
Supporters say the bill has a better chance of passage this year because health organizations are giving their hearty support.
“This is the most important public health safety issue we will discuss this year,” said Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul.
The House passed the bill during the 1997 session, but a weaker version passed the Senate and the two sides were unable to reach a compromise.
Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Anoka, who also is a retired member of the Minnesota State Patrol, said he’s optimistic this year.
“I think when we get more legislators to observe (drunken driving) tests, they will pass it,” said Foley, who is a sponsor.
A 170-pound male reaches 0.08 percent after having four drinks in an hour. Another drink brings them to 0.10 percent. Women of the same weight consume about a drink less to reach those levels.
Opponents argue that most people drink over several hours and that a person’s blood-alcohol level depends on several factors including how much they’ve eaten and their percentage of body fat.
A 120-pound woman, for example, would only have to consume two drinks in two hours to reach 0.08 percent, said John Berglund with the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.
“That is social drinking. That is not when a person is considered drunk,” he said.
A person can already be guilty of drunken driving under Minnesota law if their blood-alcohol level is below 0.10 percent and the officer can prove that the driver was impaired.
Lowering the threshold would detract from burden of proof and divert officers’ attention away from more serious offenders, said Dennis Randelin, a retired detective from the Cloquet Police Department.
“You have enacted some really tough DWI laws. Let them work,” he said.
Last year, the Legislature passed a law that stiffens penalties for the worst offenders. License plates are impounded after a second offense instead of the third, and vehicles are forfeited on the third offense instead of the fourth.
Both penalties apply sooner if the driver’s blood-alcohol content is twice the legal limit.
But Pat Budig, a mother of five from Lino Lakes, said the drunken driving law needs to cover more drivers. Her husband was killed nine years ago by a driver with a blood-alcohol level just below 0.10 percent.
“A crash caused by a driver below 0.10 is just as vicious, just as deadly, just as devastating than if he had been 0.10,” said Budig, who appeared with pictures of her 11-year-old son standing at her husband’s coffin.